P2Daily: The Smart, Non-Closer Usage of David Bednar

I don’t have anything against Chris Stratton, but if the Pittsburgh Pirates were giving their closer role to their best reliever, then David Bednar should be the one getting saves.

That’s not the case.

I don’t have anything against that, either.

Last night the Pirates beat the Cubs 4-2, with Stratton getting the save. Bednar pitched in the eighth inning, striking out the side. This isn’t the first time that this has happened.

The Pirates seem to be abandoning traditional pitching roles more and more, whether that means strategically utilizing long relievers, or optimizing the usage of their best reliever.

That would be Bednar, objectively. Among all MLB relievers this season, Bednar ranks 10th in WPA. Bednar hasn’t given up a run in seven innings this year, with a 36% strikeout rate and an 8% walk rate. The walks are even with last year, while the strikeouts are slightly up.

Under a traditional bullpen role, Bednar would be the closer, locked to the ninth inning. Instead, the Pirates have utilized him in more high-leverage situations.

Take last night’s game, for example. Bednar came on in the eighth inning with a 4-2 lead and the Cubs sending up the 2-3-4 hitters in their lineup. When Stratton came in to close out the game in the ninth, it was the same score, but he was going up against the 6-7-8 hitters.

The same thing happened one night earlier. The Pirates had a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh. With a runner on third, two outs, and the number two hitter up, the Pirates brought in Bednar, who struck out Seiya Suzuki. Bednar stayed in for a perfect eighth inning against the middle of the order, and Stratton got to work in the ninth, once again going up against the 6-7-8 hitters.

Bednar had a similar situation on April 16th. The Pirates were up 3-2 in the seventh inning, and after Dillon Peters walked number two hitter Juan Soto, the Pirates turned to Bednar, who pitched 1.2 innings with a walk. That 3-2 lead turned into a 6-2 lead by the ninth inning, which mitigated Stratton giving up two runs.

One night later, Bednar got his only save so far of the season, closing down a 5-3 game against the top of the Nationals order.

Personally, I’ve been waiting a long time to see the Pirates use relievers like this. Bednar won’t benefit from the highly paid “saves” stat, but in this type of role, he has more value to the team, and can lead to more wins.

You can see how that has played out so far. What would that April 16th game have looked like if Stratton came on for the seventh and Bednar was saved for the ninth? Would it still be a 3-2 game after seven, allowing the Pirates to comfortably add on insurance runs? Or, would Stratton’s off night have come earlier, putting the Pirates’ offense behind late, and adding more pressure, while saving Bednar for a lead that never got to the ninth?

Would Stratton have gotten the game to the ninth inning in either of the previous two nights, going up against the middle of the order with runners on, rather than the bottom of the order with no one on?

How many of those three wins might have been turned to losses by keeping Bednar as the traditional closer locked to the ninth inning?

Again, I don’t have anything against Chris Stratton. He’s been a solid reliever for years, and is a great pairing with Bednar.

It’s just Bednar is the closest thing the Pirates can get to automatic outs. Traditionally, that would have locked him into the ninth inning to get the final three outs — assuming the Pirates have a lead of three runs or less during that frame.

It seems the Pirates are going against tradition in this case, and using Bednar more strategically to maximize his value.

Such a strategy has already and will continue to lead to increased wins.

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